In a surprise move, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan halted construction work on the Center City Connector streetcar today. She cited rising costs and an error estimating the cost of streetcar vehicles to justify her pause and reassess move.

“There are too many questions about the true costs of this project and the risks to taxpayers, which is why we must put the brakes on this project,” Mayor Durkan said in a press release. “As your new Mayor, I will continue to scrub our budgets and act to protect taxpayers.”

On March 19th, Mayor Durkan ordered the City Budget Office to conduct an independent review of the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) project following news that King County Metro Transit disputed the Center City Connector’s annual operational costs by $8 million.

In a letter to the Seattle City Council, Senior Deputy Mayor Mike Fong revealed the review had already unearthed that the project to connect the First Hill and South Lake Union streetcar lines had increased to more than $200 million in capital costs and had a $23 million budgetary shortfall based on the previous $177 million cost estimate.

“The mayor has directed an immediate ‘stop work’ order for this project,” Senior Deputy Mayor Fong said. “No steps will be taken to move the project forward until: both outside technical review and the project management investigation are complete; all issues regarding the accuracy of operating and capital costs are resolved; we understand what additional financial resources would be needed be complete and operate the project using accurate projects; and we collectively determine that the project still makes sense financially and from a mobility perspective.”

 

Rendering of a Center City Connector stop. (City of Seattle)

Councilmembers Sally Bagshaw and Mike O’Brien signed on Mayor Durkan’s press release, signaling their support for pausing the project during the review. Councilmember Lisa Herhold, who had been highly skeptical of the Center City Connector, issued a press release thanking the mayor.

“This step is necessary to ensure that the independent review ordered by the Mayor is meaningful. Had work proceeded as scheduled-especially in awarding a construction contract–it would be more difficult to integrate the results of the independent review, or delay or stop the project. I had begun working on legislation to cease spending until the after the review was complete; with the Mayor’s executive order, it appears that won’t be necessary,“ Councilmember Herbold said. “I remain concerned about potential unsustainable operations shortfalls, which could be millions annually, even under the most optimistic ridership and farebox recovery scenarios.”

The Center City Connector is projected to bring the streetcar system’s ridership to 20,000 by 2020 and to about 35,000 by 2035. For comparison Seattle’s highest ridership bus, the RapidRide E, manages about 17,000 on a much longer route that stretches to Shoreline. The Center City Connector has figured as a major part of the One Center City plan to keep people moving through downtown after buses come out of the transit tunnel. By providing a dedicated transit lane on First Avenue, the connector promises to increase transit throughput in Downtown given bus congestion on Third and Fourth Avenues. With this announcement, both the streetcar and One Center City have an uncertain direction, which has cast serious doubt that the city is prepared to take action to avoid transit gridlock during the “period of maximum constraint.”

The Center City Connector would run along First Avenue and Stewart Avenue to connect the First Hill Streetcar and the South Lake Union Streetcar. (SDOT)

Although construction work for the streetcar extension will stop, utility work in Pioneer Square to replace a water main under the streetcar line will continue since the seismic upgrades were deemed necessary regardless. If the project does not move forward, the City of Seattle would have to forfeit $75 million in federal grants it received. That forfeiture, if it happens, could jeopardize Seattle’s place in line and standing on other transit projects seeking federal grants, including Sound Transit light rail projects, as Councilmember Rob Johnson has pointed out. It’s not clear how much money could be recovered from contracts canceled this late in the process.

The Senior Deputy Mayor’s letter to council alleges errors in estimating the full cost of streetcar vehicles. The city approved a $52 million contract for 10 new streetcar vehicles last fall. The letter also cites “escalating construction costs” and “increased design expenditures” as factors contributing to the project’s rising cost. Rising construction costs is something both private developers and transit agencies alike have been dealing–notably on Sound Transit’s Lynnwood Link extension. At a city council meeting last week, Councilmember Johnson argued the operation cost dispute was also a standard part of the negotiation process.

Seattle Streetcar boardings by station after the Center City Connector is completed. The Broadway extension was already abandoned last year. (SDOT)

When former SDOT Director Scott Kubly was brought aboard, he was billed as the “streetcar czar” for his role managing Washington DC streetcar projects. The Center City Connector was supposed to be right in his wheelhouse, but the project that could have been his legacy appears in jeopardy as serious questions have surfaced regarding how it was managed. It seems steadier leadership could have more gracefully navigated the project through the stormy waters it has found itself in.

Senior Deputy Mayor Fong said that SDOT Director Goran Sparrman and Budget Office Director Ben Noble will be available for questions at the full council briefing on Monday. I’d wager the councilmembers will have plenty of questions to go around.

The Center City Connector Is A Critical, High Quality Transit Project

Previous articleEverett Transit Looks Toward A More Frequent Network In Draft Plan
Next articleEvidence
Doug Trumm is the Publication Director at The Urbanist. He joined the exodus to Seattle in 2014, leaving behind his home state of Minnesota. Living on disputed land between Wallingford and Fremont, he is doing his best to improve both neighborhoods. He is a grad student at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance and a marketing intern at King County Metro. His views are his own and do not represent his employer.

7 COMMENTS

  1. 1. I think the Streetcar System was a costly mistake in the first place, but…
    2. Cancelling the CCC would also be a huge mistake. It would turn an over-priced but useful streetcar system into a costly but nearly useless fragmented one.

    The CCC part of the project is costly an inefficient in its own right, but completing it enables Seattle to actualize the benefits of the 2 existing fragmented lines. So moving forward Seattle would have a reliable connection of some of its densest residential and job centers. Abandoning the CCC essentially compounds earlier mistakes. It would be like throwing away 2B+ on the new tunnel, and then not even opening it once its near completion… even though the tunnel itself was a bad investment.

    I’m not for wasting taxpayer money on the wrong projects. But wasting a large proportion of that money already… and then cancelling the most important part that actually actualizes some benefits is even worse.

    • This type of thinking is backwards. Sunk costs do not make future spending better, viable, required, or make bad investments better. No need to double down on bad. Wake up and make responsible financial decisions. Street car was a dream headed up by current City Council members and the previous Mayor and City Council members, they turned out to be very bad financial and operational decisions which need to be remedied now.

  2. Council central staff and others were skeptical of the SDOT CCC ridership forecast. Trumm has the relationship between the CCC streetcar and One Center City backwards; the CCC would not help with transit flow during the period of maximum constraint, but harm it by taking transit capacity and diverting traffic to 2nd and 4th avenues. It would be much better to shift more bus trips to 1st Avenue if Seattle is willing to provide priority; the CCC was only to provide 12 trips per hour per direction and they could begin on two unreliable tails. The FTA has granted only $50 million; the last $25 million was still in DC. The Seattle standing with the FTA will also not be helped if the CCC is a fiscal disaster. Note that the DC streetcar was also late and disappointing.

    • Be weary of ridership and revenue projections. Actual ridership in Cincinnati is 2/3’s what was projected and is decreasing every month.

      • Cincinnati’s streetcar ridership rose substantially in March to about 90% of projections. These things take a while

  3. Leaving a gap in the system right smack dab in the middle of the city for the next generation to scratch their heads about, because of mismanagement, misrepresentation, and a funding gap of $23 million (hi, Bertha!) is not just short-sighted, it is representative of Seattle’s chronic transit malaise. Namely, that our mass-transportation woes are 100% political, not engineering. Everywhere in this city at rush hour you find gridlocked streets where up to 50% of the pavement is dedicated to storage of private vehicles. The fact that the city announced parking reforms this week is cold comfort in the same year we’re considering abandoning this hard won progress on rail transit. And One Center City has some winners and losers so might be delayed if not abandoned as well. For every transportation challenge we’ve faced in this region, there’s been a perfectly serviceable solution that no one was willing to lose a reelection to see through to the bitter end in the face of criticism, or just unrestrained what-about-ism. I’ll remind the bus advocates that this First Avenue line is attractive to those who will never consider hopping a bus. Rear-wheel-skirts (oooh) and plentiful doors notwithstanding. First Avenue is the perfect place to present 1st-class, low-floor, high-ceiling, large window, and most importantly “it-is-(literally)-on-rails” smooth, lane-dedicated service. It connects other attractive world-class features on Seattle’s center stage. It is for all of us. And it is also attractive to tourists and your visiting in-laws who would love to give it a whirl, but would otherwise have their nose in various ride sharing apps. It looks fun. It looks different than long-range commuter infrastructure. It looks like it is for them and goes where they’re going anyway. But more than debating the benefits and drawbacks of this particular project, we should be considering how continually defending approved projects from those who advocate changing horses midstream keeps us from moving forward. What if New York City never built the elevated lines out to the boroughs because somebody thought they’d be better underground? Or, somebody thought the money would be better spent on ferries? Or somebody had a better idea for routing. The time to move forward is now, or never. As it has always been in Seattle.

  4. During this stoppage, make sure this is the absolute best route for ridership. Modern streetcars in Detroit, Cincinnati and Atlanta are not meeting expectations because too many design sacrifices were made in the name of simply completing the projects.

Comments are closed.